History And Background
Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama in the sixth century BC. Siddhartha was born a Hindu and grew up in a very privileged and wealthy lifestyle, sheltered by his father from the pain and poverty of the surrounding society of India.
According to tradition, on a pleasure trip outside his palace, Gautama briefly encountered various forms of suffering: old age; sickness; death; the poverty of an ascetic monk begging for money. This experience so upset him that he abandoned his wife and newborn son, and went off in search of the answer to the meaning of existence.
After six years, Gautama concluded that neither a life of luxury and plenty, nor a life of extreme poverty, hunger and asceticism, could lead to spiritual fulfillment and freedom. At one point, so faint from hunger he could hardly move, he sat under a tree. He vowed to not move until he received enlightenment as to how to achieve spiritual freedom.
Traditions vary as to whether it took one day or 49 days. But as Gautama resisted the temptations of Mara (“the evil one”) to give up his pursuit of enlightenment, he, according to tradition, reached a highly -exalted state of consciousness or “enlightenment “. At this point, Siddhartha Gautama became known as the “Buddha” – or “enlightened one”.
After having this life-changing experience, Buddha began to expound his new teaching, which he called the “middle way”. Soon he founded his own order of followers called the Sangha.
Buddha died approximately 45 years later, possibly from food poisoning. Today there are an estimated 600 million Buddhists worldwide.
The Teachings Of Buddhism
The middle way teaching was so named because of Buddha’s rejection of the extremes of asceticism on one side and the pursuit of a sensual lifestyle on the other. This middle way consists of “four noble truths” and the “eight-fold path to enlightenment ”.
The four noble truths (the “Middle Way”) according to Buddha are:
- Suffering is universal – even after death – because of the endless cycle of death, rebirth, suffering and death on samsara (“the wheel of life” already described in the section on Hinduism). The state of nirvana is the release from this cycle.
- The cause of suffering is selfish desire; attachment to this life results from ignorance of the nature of reality, which is impermanent.
- To eliminate suffering, one must eliminate all desire.
- To eliminate all desire and craving, one must follow the “eight-fold path to enlightenment “.
The eight-fold path teaching of Buddhism represents eight ways of “right living” that supposedly eliminate all desires. One must have:
- right understanding or viewpoint;
- right thought;
- right speech;
- right behavior ;
- right occupation or livelihood ;
- right effort;
- right awareness ;
- right meditation .
These eight concepts, according to Buddhism, are not to be approached in sequence rather they are all to be practiced simultaneously. However, the first two concepts – right understanding and right thought – form a foundation for the other six concepts.
Along with the middle way and eight-fold path, there are a number of ethical teachings regarding behavior. Many of these resemble portions of the Ten Commandments (Exo 20: 1-17). These moral precepts of Buddhism forbid stealing, killing (of any life form), immoral sexual behavior, and lying. This moral code is known as sila. It is accompanied by mental discipline and samadhi, a deep state of consciousness or trance in which a person loses all sense of personal identity.
Buddha’s teachings focused on the elimination of suffering through enlightenment and through the liberation from samsara (the endless cycle of death, rebirth and death). This was to be done, according to Buddha, by the elimination of cravings and desires. As the follower of the middle path eliminated his attachments to an unreal world and imaginary self, karma (merits or demerits based on good or bad behavior) would have nothing to attach itself to. This would lead to enlightenment, which is the state of nirvana, the Buddhist concept of salvation.
Nirvana was and is a difficult term to define. Even Buddha did not attempt a clear answer as to the makeup of nirvana. The word itself literally means “the ‘blowing out’ of the flame of desire”. To Buddha, real persons never existed, and all people are only imaginary. But Buddha did maintain that life in this world is real and the suffering that accompanies it is also real.
Nirvana was portrayed as a complete escape from both karma and the cycle of samsara. This was a rejection of Hindu teaching that the world is an illusion and the suffering experienced by those living in this world is also an illusion.
Buddhism flourished in India for several centuries until it was absorbed by Hinduism. The Hindu priesthood even declared Buddha to be an incarnation of Vishnu (one of their main gods). Buddhism was spread throughout Asia by Buddhist monks.
There are three main branches of Buddhism and hundreds of variations in many places of the world, but primarily in Asian countries. These three main forms of Buddhism are:
- Theravada Buddhism – In this branch of Buddhism, enlightenment is available to only a few, primarily monks. Others must simply hope to be reincarnated as a monk in a future life in order to pursue enlightenment. This group has a closed canon of Buddhistic writings consisting of Buddha’s teachings, ethical rules for monks, and a variety of philosophical teachings. Theravada Buddhism stresses that a person should be concerned with his own enlightenment and not with another’s enlightenment.
- Mahayana Buddhism – This branch of Buddhism teaches that enlightenment is available to all people. Mahayana teaching developed the idea of bodhisattva: bodhisattva is someone who has attained enlightenment but refuses to enter nirvana, in order to guide others to achieve enlightenment. Buddha’s original teaching emphasized that you are the only one who can save yourself. But Mahayana Buddhism developed the concept of “savior gods” who can be called upon by other Buddhists for help. Mahayana Buddhists reasoned that this is why Buddha stayed on earth 45 years after his enlightenment, in order to help others achieve The Mahayana’s make Buddha the first bodhisattva. The Mahayana branch accepts writings from India, China, Japan and Tibet.
- Vajrayana or Tantra – This branch of Buddhism comes from a form of Hinduism that emphasizes occult practices for the development of spiritual power. Vajrayana Buddhism is the primary religion of Tibet. The primitive folk religions of Tibet have also been incorporated into this form of Buddhism. The practices include: chanting phrases repeatedly; prayer wheels; appeasing hosts of demons, spirits and other evil forces through worship and sacrifice.
Beyond these three main branches of Buddhism, there are several other major forms of Buddhism:
Zen Buddhism – which focuses on meditation to achieve instantaneous enlightenment.
Pure Land Buddhism – which teaches faith in an incarnation of Buddha called “Amida Buddha.” Amida supposedly established a paradise kingdom that people who trusted in Amida could enter after death. This was said to be attained by calling on Amida through chanting, not on self-reliance or meditation.
Vichiren Shoshu Buddhism – includes a new and different chant that supposedly replaced the Pure Land chant. Followers believe that this form of Buddhism will replace all other forms of Buddhism and eventually bring peace to all mankind by uniting the world.
Comparing Christianity With Buddhism
Buddha maintained that the cause of suffering was ignorance of the “pathway” needed to be rid of desires and cravings. The Bible has a very different perspective. Scripture does not deny the reality of suffering in our world, but points to a very different cause for it. The whole world and especially humanity suffers because of the entrance and continued practice of sin (Rom 1: 18-23; 5:12). Humans are born with a sin nature and willfully choose to sin, desiring to live a selfish life independent of a loving God.
Though Buddha claimed that the presence of any desire is the source of suffering, Christianity affirms that there are desires that are good and right. These good and right desires will lead to fulfillment and joy, not suffering. For instance:
- the desire for God (Ps 73:25);
- the desire to glorify God through worship and service to Him and service to our fellow man;
- the desire to obediently live by the truths revealed in the Bible;
- the desire to pray and ask the Lord to answer (John 15:7);
- the desire for the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor 12:31; 14:1);
- the desire for the Word of God (1 Pet 2:2). All of these are good and right desires.
The Bible also reveals that there are bad desires as well. James 1:13-15 reveals how the desires of our sinful natures lead people to sin. This sin eventually brings both spiritual and physical death (Rom 6:23).
The Buddhist is taught that suffering is caused by desire, and therefore to eliminate suffering he must eliminate desire. He must also do all of this through self-effort, with no outside help.
By contrast, Christians have been given a Deliverer- Jesus Christ – Who has redeemed them from their sins and provided the free gift of salvation. Christians have been given the Holy Spirit, Who helps them become free of the bondages caused by sin!
Hallelujah! (See John 8:32; 14:16, 17, 26; Galatians 1:4; Ephesians 2:1-13.) The following chart makes some additional important major contrasts between Christianity and Buddhism:
God- God exists as sovereign King and Creator of the universe, and is intimately involved in humanity’s affairs (Job 12:23; Ps 75:6,7; Dan 4:25; Acts 17: 26,28); Jesus is the Son of God (Ps 2:7,8; Rom 1:1-4; Heb 4:14; 1 John 5:9-13).
Man- Man is created by God in His image.
God through Jesus is the Creator of the physical universe (Gen 1:26,27; John 1:3).
Man’s Problem– Man is in moral rebellion against a righteous and perfectly Holy God (Ps 14:1-3; Isa 53:6).
Solution- Man has a sin problem that only the forgiveness of sins can solve; this solution was given to man in the Person of Jesus Christ, Who died in man’s place to pay for man’s sins (2 Cor 5:21; 1 Pet 1:18-21).
Incarnation- Jesus is the unique and only God-the Son Who took on human flesh through the virgin birth to die for the sins of mankind and be resurrected (1 Cor 15:3- 6; Phil 2:5-9; Heb 2:14-17).
Salvation- Jesus declared that He is the Way of salvation and there is no other means of salvation (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). We have only this life to make our decision regarding Christ, and then comes the judgment (Heb 9:27)
God- God does not exist and is not relevant to the middle path; Jesus is acknowledged as a teacher, but not as great or important as Buddha.
Man – Man is a fiction; there is not a real “self’, only an illusion; the physical world is an illusion to be escaped.
Man’s Problem –People suffer because of desires and cravings.
Solution- Eliminate desire and attain enlightenment through self-effort (Theravada) or by help received from various bodhisattvas (Mahayana).
Incarnation-For Mahayana Buddhists, there are many bodhisattvas (incarnations). For Theravada Buddhists, Buddha was only a man – no God or gods are needed or wanted.
Salvation There are many paths to God based upon human effort; these are only through many cycles of death and rebirth.
Practical Guidelines For Sharing With A Buddhist
Though Christianity and Buddhism differ in their fundamental points of belief, they do both acknowledge the following principles:
- The value of a moral life;
- Desires can cause suffering;
- Prayer is of value;
- Self-discipline brings rewards.
The following are some suggestions for answering questions a Buddhist may have about Christianity:
- Ask questions to find out what branch of Buddhism they are part of, and whether or not their beliefs are filled with animism. Feel free to share your beliefs based upon the Word of God, since most Buddhists do not truly understand the true message of Christianity.
- For the Buddhist, salvation is a matter of self- effort. The Bible, however, gives the assurance that “whoever calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom 10:13; see also Acts 16:30,31).
Mahayana Buddhism expanded to allow for the “help” of bodhisattvas (incarnated Buddhas), who are supposedly able to give some of their “karmic merit” to other Buddhists.
Deep within every human heart is the realization that their own human effort is not enough to save them and deliver them from sin. Remind the Buddhist of this, and of what is enough: faith in the only One Who can save him, Jesus Christ.
- Both Buddhism and Christianity acknowledge a set of moral standards by which to live. Yet man, being by nature sinful, cannot perfectly live up to these moral standards – and therefore cannot obtain salvation through his own efforts.
However, the Christian can testify of a Personal God Who is both willing and able to forgive sins through Jesus Christ (1 John 1:9), and Who makes all things new (2 Cor 5: 17).
- What makes Christianity unique is the personal presence of God. This truth should compel you as a Christian to do two things:
- Share your personal faith in God with others, and tell them of what God has done for you – answering your prayers, loving you, being with you at all times, forgiving you, giving you power to live this life, etc.
- Emphasize that God is personal. He is very near us (Ps 139; Matt 28:20; Heb 13:5). He delights in us coming to Him with our prayers and worship, and He delights in answering our petitions (Ps 22:3-5; 34: 17; Prov 15:29). The One true God understands and has compassion upon our affliction (Ps 69:33; Heb 4: 15), and He loves us eternally (Rom 8:37-39).
- Buddhists believe that everything is impermanent except i n the “void” where individuals can find permanence.
For us as Christians, our permanence is in Christ and our eternal relationship with Him. Jesus Christ does not change (Heb 13:8). The Scriptures teach us that God does not change (Ps 33: 11; Mal 3:6; Jas 1:17) nor do His promises (1 Ki 8:56; Rom 4:20, 21; 2 Cor 1:20). His justice is perfect (Gen 18:25; Deut 10:17, 18) and is perfectly balanced with His love and mercy (Ps 103: 17; Ps 136; Lam 3:22-24; Rom 8:31-39).
As a Christian, you have so much you can share with a Buddhist who is hungry for truth and something that is real. As in all witnessing situations, be much in prayer. Treat others and their beliefs with respect and sensitivity. Remember, “the goodness [kindness] of God leads you to repentance” (Rom 2:4). Therefore, let us share our faith boldly, while also showing the love of Christ in all that we do, say and are – let all things be done with love (1 Cor 16:14).